Note:  A postscript was added to this essay on May 15, 2013**

About a year-and-a-half ago I was having dinner with a group of friends in India, at the home of a Tibetan friend. The topic of the sad state of affairs in the Tibetan community in India (loss of morale, corruption, etc.) came up and I rhetorically asked when it had all gone bad. Mind you, I have strong memories of the early days, of the time when the sense of unwavering commitment to Tibet was palpable, when the stand for Tibetan independence was not controversial (to the contrary!), when getting to the West was not the first thing on people’s minds. It was in that atmosphere that a good number of us non-Tibetans first encountered Tibet and the Tibet struggle and it indeed colored our attitudes (the attitudes of some of us at least) throughout the subsequent decades.

Well, in response to my question, my friend replied that it was the Middle Way. Everything had changed with that. We didn’t discuss it further, and moved on to other topics and a warm, convivial (and delicious) dinner.

August 1988; the molding of public opinion begins

But I thought about the remark. I don’t know if my friend meant the comment in the way I’ve taken it, but it seemed to me (and still does) to be much more insightful than its brevity might suggest. For when the Middle Way became official policy—with the Strasbourg Statement in the summer of 1988, though, truth be told, Tibetan Government-in-Exile officials were already operating on the basis of the policy years before it became public—it wrought a stunning reversal. Over the course of days anyone with a stake in the governing status quo, anyone with something to lose should they not remain in good standing with the Tibetan establishment, was faced with the fear of possibly losing a position, prestige, even a job, should he or she not remain in step with the policy decreed by the Dalai Lama. And so, one saw many, many, split-second turnarounds. People who had one day touted their commitment to the independence of Tibet were the next day touting that they were not for independence, but for Tibet being a democratic “entity” within China. Or minimally they learned to keep quiet. All of this happened in the absence of reasoned discussion and the formulation of a logical conclusion. It happened for reasons of expedient self-interest. People didn’t want to be on the opposite side of the divide from those who held power.

What was lost in all this was idealism: the idealism that had been the hallmark of the Tibetan struggle, both for Tibetans in exile (think back to the founding of the Tibetan Youth Congress) and for their non-Tibetan supporters and sympathizers. The Middle Way institutionalized—and under the circumstances it could not have been otherwise—cynical self-interest and private gain. The idealists were scorned as unrealistic (in point of fact they have turned out to be the realists), unconciliatory, and extremist, all negative qualities which aided in limiting their places in the structures of Tibetan society, unless they repented or at least shut-up. Advancement was very much helped by fealty to the new line. An establishment that, with all its faults, was rooted in its furtherance of a common ideal, had now jettisoned that ideal and was coaxing shows of support for a policy decided by a small elite group, a policy that would easily have been dismissed had it not come with the Dalai Lama’s name associated with it. Some people, grasping at straws, tried to argue that the Middle Way was a way to secretly get back to Tibet and get independence (and in that they were at least in the company of the Chinese authorities who, like the Tibetans who promoted this rationale, have insisted that the Middle Way was and is a dishonest ruse). But this is a footnote. By vitiating Tibetan idealism the Middle Way raised the curtain on the first act of what became over the years a spectacle of increasing cronyism and corruption within Tibetan exile society, perhaps most notably manifested more recently by, among other things, visa scams worked by Tibetans on other Tibetans, fake asylum claims, criminal activities on the part of nihilistic Tibetan youths, etc. (One might say that some—even much—of this would certainly exist without the policy change, but I believe that the degree to which we have it today would surely have been less.)

* * *

The victory of the Middle Way and the degeneration of ideals that followed in its wake should not be seen in isolation from the distorted understanding of civil society among Tibetans in exile that enabled it; i.e., the understanding among a substantial number of Tibetans that the policies, pronouncements, and wishes of the leader—the Dalai Lama—must not be subjected to serious critical objections and dissent. This atmosphere has led to the use of the Dalai Lama as a prop by some, and to mention of his name as the crux of an argument’s merits by others. This warped sense of civil society has become one of the obvious characteristics of significant portions of the exile community. It is reflected in the dismissal of Jigme Ngapo from his position at the Tibetan Service of Radio Free Asia late last year; allegations of the exile leadership’s political machinations to exert influence over RFA have been asserted by several parties as the primary cause of his dismissal. Reliable reports have made it clear that this dismissal was very much in line with the wishes of the leadership in Dharamsala. Even if short-sighted officials in Dharamsala may consider the termination of Jigme Ngapo’s employment opportune, the whole affair is deplorable. For one thing, given the questions about Lobsang Sangay’s behavior (financial and otherwise) that have been popping up, it is no credit to exile efforts at civil society for its leadership to move to influence reporting and personnel issues at RFA. RFA is, after all, mandated by the U.S. government to retain objectivity in its reporting—reporting that must sometimes take in the doings of these self-same Tibetan exile political figures. Some of the complaints about Jigme Ngapo actually speak favorably to his understanding of the need for distance and objectivity, i.e., complaints that he never visited Dharamsala as head of RFA’s Tibetan Service or requested a personal audience with the Dalai Lama during his tenure. And more recently there has come very reliable word of a particularly embarrassing incident, indicative of Dharamsala’s adamant intention to involve itself in RFA matters. Since many of the principle players in Jigme Ngapo’s dismissal were caught off guard by the furor that followed it, the Dalai Lama—ostensibly retired from political activity—decided to lend his authority and influence to the cause of quieting dissent on the issue. In a closed talk to Tibetan journalists at the 26th Mind and Life Conference in Mundgod in January, well after Jigme Ngapo had been dismissed from his post, he made it clear that he agreed with the complaints that the Tibetan exile leadership had been making about Jigme Ngapo’s independence (e.g., complaints about Jamyang Norbu being allowed to give commentary on RFA) and supported his dismissal. Most mind-boggling, though, was his statement that Libby Liu, the controversial (to say the least) head of RFA and the one who terminated Jigme Ngapo’s tenure there, had done much more for Tibet than Jigme Ngapo had ever done. Given the machinations to oust Jigme Ngapo that preceded this, having the Dalai Lama—who is seemingly unconcerned about any questionable behavior on the part of Libby Liu or Lobsang Sangay (the latter, after all, being an ardent supporter of his policy of retaining Tibet as a part of China)—pronounce favorably on the merits of one RFA official over another simply solidifies the perception that the wall that ought normally to keep exile political influence out of RFA’s affairs has been toxically eroded.

* * *

To bemoan the state of civil society in exile is not—please be assured, dear reader—to propose any sort of equivalence, moral or actual, between the PRC and the Tibetan exile political structure, such as it is. Whatever valid criticisms of exile society and the exile community one might make, arrests, executions, and torture are in no way part of it; on the most obvious level there is simply no meaningful or honest comparison to be made between what transpires inside Tibet and what transpires in exile. But that should not deter anyone from being blunt about the ills of exile society, including the less than complete grasp on the part of many exiles as to what makes up a functional civil society. This state of affairs may also be responsible for the often skewed view of Chinese society that periodically manifests itself among exiles. In some quarters the growing interest in Tibetan Buddhism on the part of some Chinese within the PRC has been translated into notions about support for the Tibetan cause within China, ignoring the fact that many of the people in China who take an interest in Tibetan Buddhism do so with little or no awareness of the Tibet Issue and its implications (not unlike some of their counterparts in the West, actually). Indeed, to the question that is frequently asked—what do Chinese think about Tibet?—the answer is quite simple: Tibet does not occupy the thoughts of the vast majority of Chinese. And when it does come to mind, it is likely to be as a region whose people were liberated from a particularly horrendous form of feudal oppression, or as a land of apolitical mysticism. The fact is most Chinese don’t spend time thinking or caring about Tibet. Indeed, when Tibet comes into broader view, as during the protests of 2008, this lack of serious reflection results in bafflement or, more commonly, resentment—resentment at the patent ingratitude of Tibetans for the liberation from slave-like servitude that China granted them. This is not to ignore those Chinese who do dare to reject what the official media and Chinese ultra-nationalism prompts them to think about the issue. But they are a terribly small part of the population and to see them as having a role to play in pushing popular sentiment (let alone official policy) in a certain direction is, at least at this moment in time, to misread the nature of civil society in China, as many in the exile community are indeed wont to do.

It is for this reason that the projection of Tibetan hopes onto the phenomena of visible Chinese protests—the perception that these protests are opening up a space for greater Tibetan freedom—has serious failings. Protests within the PRC—and there are many—are indeed striking. But Tibetans who think that they may foreshadow the growth of a Chinese society predicated on broad notions of justice and human rights that will work towards addressing the aspirations of Tibetans are misjudging much of their context.

And this brings us briefly back to RFA, where a March 11 news story headlined “Many Chinese Sympathetic to Tibet: RFA Poll” started off with the statement that “Mainland Chinese are largely sympathetic to the cause of Tibet…” The headline and opening phrase certainly express sentiments that feed into the exile establishment’s view that the Middle Way is an effective policy, one that is winning popular Chinese support because of its “conciliatory” nature. Yet when one reads the story closely one discovers that it is based on telephone questioning of… 30 Chinese respondents! 30 people (not all of whom, by the way, are wholly sympathetic to Tibetan expressions of discontent) out of, say, 1.3 billion! One may rightly wonder: what agenda—or, more aptly, who’s agenda—would get such a headline and story posted on the RFA website on the basis of a statistically less-than-inconsequential phone survey of RFA listeners? Only a disregard for minimal journalistic standards for research and reporting could produce such a story. What next? Will RFA be breathlessly telling its listeners in China that most Americans have sighted Elvis Presley, alive and well, at their local McDonalds?

It should be understood, when trying to read potential Chinese thinking about Tibet from the larger phenomenon of Chinese protests, that local protests in China are most commonly rooted in specific local issues; they are fundamentally different from protests that involve nationality issues and nationality discontents. These latter are inherently imbued with—tainted with, as many would see it—the potential for undermining crucial elements in the modern construction of the Chinese nation. The introduction of the national question into a protest automatically places it in a much more sinister category (as far as the authorities and many Chinese citizens are concerned) than that of protests caused by limited local grievances. And here the crippled nature of Chinese civil society becomes clearer. Setting aside those few, brave souls who do look beyond their own group’s interests and raise their voices in support of broad human rights issues (and of course there are such people in China, let’s not forget), the sort of civil society backing for issues that transcend the personal interests of particular protestors is still quite weak. It does exist, of course, and when one sees manifestations of it, it is striking. But China is far from producing a civil society in which significant numbers of people will take a strong, public, dissenting stand on an issue removed from their own perceived interests. Consider that the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1960s only achieved the level of success that it did when a majority of the population—the non-Black population—was no longer able to avoid a gut-level sense of shame and anger over the bigotry, discrimination and worse that was visited upon one sector of society. That the majority did not suffer the same outrages inflicted on the Black population was beside the point. The situation was repugnant; it offended the sense of justice of the majority, which ultimately supported measures and actions to end it. And this, out of a sense of civil society; an awareness that it is largely the citizenry, not the government, that must ultimately set the agenda for social justice.

* * *

This is what makes Tibetan expectations about Chinese society so misleading. Contrary to what RFA claims to have adduced, it is nowhere near being a society in which visceral opposition to injustice visited upon someone else can be sufficient grounds for outcries and broad social action over conditions in Tibet. Although there is sympathy for Tibetan grievances to be found on some social media sites, it is dwarfed by a larger public sentiment that either accepts official positions or is uninterested. Given the deterministic ideological arguments that dominated Chinese thinking on a host of subjects (history, religion, society, etc.) for decades, derisory attitudes to international sensitivities about injustice in Tibet are hardly unexpected. In most Chinese conceptions of the factors that produced an international movement in support of Tibet there is little room for consideration of the workings of civil society. Rather, certain forces whose objective effect is anti-China are at work underneath the veneer of civil society humanitarianism; forces that are deterministic: rooted, above all in group social and historical dynamics divorced from individualistic sensibilities and direction. Agitation over Tibet in the West and elsewhere (almost always characterized as anti-China) is presented as something easily understood once one comprehends the determining dynamics of the society or people in question.

At least one of the explanations can be characterized as transparently idiotic (and vile). 美国犹太人的西藏观和对“西藏问题”的态度 (“American Jews’ View of Tibet and Their Attitude Toward the ‘Tibet Question’ ”), a 2011 article by Du Yongbin in Zhongguo Zangxue, one of China’s premier journals of Tibetan Studies, starts off by reminding readers of several pertinent “facts:”

Of the 200 cultural figures with the most influence among Americans, half of them are Jews. Up to the early 1980s, of the more than 100 American Nobel Prize winners, close to half were Jews and their descendants. As a result, some people say America controls the world and the Jews control America. For reasons of religion, culture, politics, etc., there is an indissoluble link binding American Jews and the Tibet Issue.

From that point on one has a pretty good idea as to where all this is going. And the author doesn’t disappoint, providing sections on Jewish officials in the U.S. government (shades of Richard Nixon!), on the emotional tie of Jewish officials to the Tibet Issue, on Jewish academics, on Jews in Tibetan Studies (including yours truly, of course), etc. He ends with a delineation of political, emotional and cultural factors linking American Jews to the Tibet Issue: American Jews identify with the diasporic circumstances of Tibetan exiles; both Jews and Tibetans are religious peoples facing questions of modernization, secularization and cultural preservation; the realization of Zionism is considered a model for achieving Tibetan Independence, etc. But before this point, there is, as I guess is to be expected in such a piece of drivel, a short disquisition on the “Jewish media’s” support for Tibetan independence, noting ominously that “Within these world-famous media companies, not only are the owners Jewish, but many of their important posts are filled by Jews. Although there are many newspapers and magazines owned by non-Jews, their advertising income depends, to a very large degree, on Jews.” Whew! One hopes Du Yongbin has been properly thanked for sounding the alarm on Jewish control of the media! And where has the author found such spectacular insights? Well, fortunately this bit is footnoted. His source is a one-stop go-to website for all things Jewish-Conspiratorial:…! Du Yongbin’s embrace of the assertions of anti-Semitic cranks (the website’s homepage features a lovely graphic of “Zionist Leon Trotsky of the Zionist USSR”) can hardly be an error of ignorance. Yes, some may argue that such idiocy has wide currency in China. But in this instance it’s being aired in a journal that presents itself as a vehicle for scholarship. Its publication in Zhongguo Zangxue illustrates the ease with which, in the broad absence of liberal, civil society modes of thought, deterministic, essentialist beliefs are taken up to explain foreign attitudes concerning China’s treatment of Tibet. A pity Du Yongbin wasn’t around in Stalin’s waning years. He might then have been able to combine his belief in an overarching Jewish-American position on Tibet with a Stalinist/Marxist disquisition on Jewish… uh, make that “rootless cosmopolitan,” art, capitalism, etc.

* * *

But the best illustration of the application of essentialist and illiberal thinking to the Tibet Issue derives from that deterministic work par excellence, Edward Said’s Orientalism. In the most basic and simplistic way in which the book has come to be used by its acolytes—China and Tibet aside—it allows for identity and representation to trump or muddle the specifics of awkward fact; identity and position determine representation, and so the West must see and deal with the “Orient” in a manner that accords with the needs of the West’s position of dominance and its imperialist heritage. These have made of the Orient a backward, barbaric “Other,” justifying the West’s position and needs in the relationship. Through elaboration, this also extends to positive images of the Oriental “Other,” or so Chinese commentators would have it when they assert that the West, in its demonization of China needs to invoke the image of a sacred, otherworldly and wise Tibet. In essence, the West must view the Orient in the basic, prescribed manner. As Said made clear (selecting India and Egypt to stand in for the Orient in toto):

I doubt if it is controversial, for example, to say that an Englishman in India or Egypt in the later nineteenth century took an interest in those countries that was never far from their status as British colonies. To say this may seem quite different from saying that all academic knowledge about India and Egypt is somehow tinged and impressed with, violated by, gross political fact—and yet that is what I am saying in this study of Orientalism. For if it is true that no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances, then it must also be true that for a European or American studying the Orient there can be no disclaiming the main circumstances of his actuality: that he comes up against the Orient as a European or American first…

And there’s more than a small grain of truth in this: people do stereotype the “Other.” It happens between cultures, between nations, between regions, between peoples and ethnie, etc., and within them as well. And people are influenced and shaped by their environments. But these are commonplaces, not great revelations; and elevating them to the overriding determining factor in the development of an individual’s views means subordinating the content of said views—and the facts that shape and gain expression in them—to the identity of the observer. It makes people first and foremost functions of their identities (as described by the many academic fans of Orientalism, of course); and as such it is ideology. It is ideology as much as if the identity in question were class or race.

Much ink has already been spilled pointing out the holes in Said’s work, not least his poor grasp of academic Orientalism in the West, as evidenced, for instance, in his seemingly near-total ignorance of the German Indological tradition, a tradition bereft, during its development, of an accompanying German imperialist stake in India of any sort. What Orientalism ignores in the motivation of so many scholars such as these is amply summed up in the very title of Robert Irwin’s critique: For Lust of Knowing. Rather trenchantly Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) noted, apropos of Said’s portrait of Orientalism as a colonialist-imperialist conspiracy: “Who knows? One day it will perhaps be discovered that the best studies of Tang poetry and Song painting have all been financed by the CIA—a fact that should somehow improve the public image of this much-maligned organization.” His critique (“Orientalism and Sinology”)—which was specifically concerned with what Orientalism meant for Sinology—ought to be read in full; it can be found in the most recent collection of his essays.

If one takes note of the slippery generalities about the production of stereotypes and the role of social and political environments in the shaping of views that are frequent elements in much of the literature that has grown around Orientalism, one might just begin to see that the “theory” of “Orientalism” has ultimately come down to the fetishization of the banal. (In this sense, perhaps, it was an early herald of a broader trend, at least in large sectors of Anglo-American academia: banalities dressed up in affected neologisms and effusively praised as pathbreaking revelations at annual circle-jerk symposia and conferences, only to be all but forgotten by the time the following year’s gathering has been convened.)

In truth, it’s necessary to point out that Orientalism’s assertions about the manner in which the power interests of the West shape scholarship, literature, media, etc., creating in all of them an image of the Orient as violent, brutal, craven, etc., etc.; i.e., an image “tinged and impressed with, violated by,” the political needs of the West, were hardly new when the book first appeared. If one were on a major American university campus such as… well, why not say Said’s very own Columbia University in, say, the early 1970s, well before Orientalism saw the light of print… If one were in that particular place at that particular time one could hardly have been unaware of any number of lectures or presentations demonstrating how the imperialist culture and interests of the United States determined the popular and academic representation of China: Fu Manchu, Anna May Wong, et al, were all part of the inevitable imagery that an imperialist power required in order to represent China as a violent, brutal place when in fact the China of the day was a place of broad harmony, committed altruism and—above all—revolutionary solidarity; a place where intellectuals and students happily went out to the countryside to live in communes and learn from the peasantry. Violence, torture, and oppression in the China of the Cultural Revolution? It was only the United States, abetted by an academic establishment which was, shall we say, “violated by gross political fact,” that propagated such an image for its own imperialist purposes. Thankfully audiences could learn the revolutionary truth about such colonialist misrepresentations from the roving bands of lecturers from the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars or, a little later, from the U.S.-China People’s Friendship Association… Alas, by the early 1980s that had all became a huge embarrassment to a host of newly-minted China experts (think Shirley MacLaine, et al.). Unfortunately, it turned out that there had been violence and brutality attached to the Cultural Revolution… violence and brutality aplenty.

Orientalism, as often propounded, is in large part a conversation-changer. If the topic is repression in Tibet, human rights violations, torture, or mass deaths, Orientalism allows for the conversation to be changed to the identity of the speaker and the unspoken agenda that those sharing the identity must have. These take precedence over mere facts, and therein lies the ideological element. Of course people have agendas; but reducing the individual, scholar or not, first and foremost to a function of a specific agenda associated with a designated identity ought to seem transparently unreliable as methodology. But it is easy and saves one the problem of dealing with the complex and contradictory natures of real people, It is worth remembering the words that Marguerite Yourcenar drew from the imaginary pen of the Emperor Hadrian: “I have often reflected upon the error that we commit in supposing that a man or a family necessarily share in the ideas or events of the century in which they happen to exist.”

* * *

The often vacuous banality of Orientalism has allowed it to be used by any and all. While Chinese commentators have made use of it to criticize Western supporters of Tibet, there are Western supporters and some Tibetans who have picked up the accusation and thrown it back, accusing Chinese of “internal Orientalism” vis-à-vis Tibet. The result conjures up an image of two sides yelling at each other, accusing the other side of being the “real Orientalist.”

It requires little imagination to see what advantage ideological guilt-by-association theorizing can provide to the standard Chinese argument on the Tibet Issue. Wang Hui, one of the best-known writers on the issue of Orientalism and the Tibet Question, gives a clear-cut demonstration. He evinces no need (and, one assumes, no desire) to discuss the details of repression, imprisonment, a history of mass death, etc., etc., in Tibet as understandable (indeed, justifiable) causes for normal civil-society-based concern or activity over the Tibet Issue. Rather, he need simply tie any interest in democracy and human rights to the agenda prescribed by Orientalism and its devotees, as Wang Hui does in an article (portions of which can be found expanded upon in his book 东西之间的“西藏问题” [“The ‘Tibet Question’ Between East and West”]). Thus:

Here I will first discuss the reaction to the issue in Western society. In actuality, those who support “Tibetan Independence” have their own individual distinctions. Other than launching criticisms of China’s politics from the angles of democracy, and human rights, there are also three different aspects, seen from the historical angle, that merit attention. The first is that Western knowledge about Tibet is deeply rooted in the West’s Orientalist knowledge, which up to the present has not been sorted out and clarified. This element has had the most influence on Europeans. The following aspect is the organization of specific governmental power to manipulate public opinion and political activity. This is most relevant to the United States. The third mixes sympathy for Tibet with apprehension, dread, rejection and disgust at China’s rapidly rising economy and very different political system. This point has influenced the entire world, except for the Third World. These three aspects are not only related to nationalism, even more so connected to colonialism, imperialism, Cold War history and the state of inequality within globalization…

Said took Islamic Studies as the center of his analysis of Oriental Studies* in Europe. He saw this body of knowledge as something that had been dealt with on the basis of the kind of position that the Orient had held within Western European experience, fixing an Oriental pattern. And within this pattern the Orient became an integral and composite part of European material culture and civilization; a constructed Other for the European Self. As concerned Europe, the Orient wasn’t pure fabrication or fantasy, neither was it a sort of naturally existing entity. Rather, it was a sort of system of theory and practice created by human beings, containing a level of material content accumulated over an endless stretch of history. Tibetology has always held an important place within Oriental Studies but to date it has not been treated seriously as such. In the West Tibetology is not placed within Chinese Studies. It has been like this ever since the formative period of Oriental Studies. From this sort of knowledge system itself one can see the methods for Sino-Tibetan relations in the Western imagination. These methods, basically speaking, are just the way Said described them…

And even in the realm of scholarship the shadow of Orientalism has never disappeared… The Shangri-La story is derived from the myths of Blavatsky: the story of a bunch of white people living in the Buddhist society of Shangri-La. In this story, Tibet serves as the background. The author and the actors were all Westerners dreaming of Shambhala or Shangri-La. Hollywood movies and all manner of mass culture incessantly reproduce stories about Shambhala or Shangri-La. But all that they express is what they are dreaming of within the world of the West. In the aftermath of war, industrialization and all sorts of disaster, Tibet—to put it more precisely—is Shambhala or Shangri-La. It has become a fantasy world for many Westerners: a world that is mysterious, spiritual, filled with revelations, non-technological, peace-loving, virtuous, and imbued with psychic capabilities.

The tenor of Wang Hui’s comments is clear. And from them too one can understand the generally positive view that is given another work, one which focuses on the fantasy element, the Western view of Tibet as Shangri-La. Grounded in Orientalism, Wang Hui makes use of the Shangri-La meme, proposing that one aspect of Western hostility to China is rooted in the notion that China has destroyed the West’s cherished fantasy land. And so we find Don Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La invoked by some writers in support of that position. Indeed, when the book was published at least one critic was angered that it would provide fodder for China’s overall position on Tibet. And one might surmise that that has been the case, given the references to it that can be found in Chinese writings. But there’s a significant difference between Prisoners of Shangri-La, as read in China, and Orientalism. To start off, Orientalism as used by Chinese writers is not a distortion of its author’s main thesis. This is what makes it so handy. But Prisoners of Shangri-La is something else altogether. Don Lopez does delve—in detail—into the fantasizing about Tibet that has become so markedly associated with the country. But in this he does not tie sympathy with the plight of contemporary Tibet uniquely to Western needs for a pure realm somewhere far away, nor does he deny the reality of what has happened in Tibet under Chinese rule. Indeed, he is quite categorical in describing China’s presence in Tibet with the terms “occupation” and “colonization.” Broadly speaking, recent Chinese writing on the subject doesn’t really represent a new development, save perhaps as regards its particularly skewed slant. Western scholarship has long been addressing the issue of a fantasy Tibet without in any way ignoring the horrors that have transpired there under Chinese rule. Already in 1996 a major symposium devoted to the subject, Mythos Tibet, was convened in Bonn, bringing together many of the major Western academics (including Don Lopez) who have dealt with the subject in one way or another. Even before that, Agehananda Bharati (Leopold Fischer) authored a much-discussed piece on the subject in the mid-1970s.

There’s something else that is quite telling about the position of Prisoners of Shangri-La in Chinese academic writing. While it is cited by some writers in China, many (if not most) of whom read it in translation, the actual translation is not accessible to the general public. It is not to be found, so far as I can tell, in any publicly accessible bookstore, nor is it possible for ordinary students and members of the public to read it. That, in and of itself, ought to make clear that its contents are not wholly or honestly represented by many of the Chinese writers who make use of it. As for Orientalism, that book is easily available in Chinese translation, a translation which includes a key to the pagination of the original English edition (so that, anyone, when citing it, can give the appearance of having used the original English-language version). Of course there’s no need in China to misrepresent Orientalism; it’s the perfect conversation-changer (when talk turns to the unpleasant subjects of political imprisonment, torture, etc., in Tibet) exactly as is. Its core idea makes it well-suited for use as an antidote against the insistence that specific grievances, facts, accounts of atrocities should be—must be—spoken of, written about and exposed before an international public, regardless of whatever identity one fixes on the speaker or writer. It is pressed into service to pronounce the content of what is said to be the mere, inevitable narratives of a certain identity.

* * *

The need for the free and open airing of arguments, assertions, and positions is an essential element of a functioning civil society in both the PRC and Tibetan exile society, though the dynamics and types of damage done in the two cases are indeed exponentially very different. Still, the fact that there is such a lack in exile was made obvious just late last month. The Tibetan Youth Congress had scheduled an international symposium on the Rangzen issue for May 23-25 in Dharamsala. With such a gathering at hand (full disclosure: I was one of the invitees) the powers that be apparently exerted pressure (some direct, much of it indirect) on the TYC. Bearing in mind that there is no moral comparison between what transpires inside Tibet and what happens in exile, the result was nevertheless disturbing. In addition to the pressure aimed at halting the meeting, it is a curious fact that, for various reasons, none of the possible venues in Dharamsala that TYC tried to reserve for it could be made available. For those who worry about the state of Tibetan civil society, the fact that the TYC then simply scrubbed the meeting furthers the vexation. The machinations and tactics that were brought to bear effectively deprived those whose views are at odds with official policy of an opportunity to meet and express dissenting opinions. This is rather ironic: only two weeks earlier Tibetans and Tibetan supporters had been vociferously condemning the University of Sydney for withdrawing permission for the Dalai Lama to speak at a venue on its campus, claiming, among other things, that this was an assault on the right of free speech. But now the inescapable impression is that many in Tibetan exile society, not excluding people in the leadership, see that right as something they do indeed support… but for themselves, and not necessarily (or fully) for those with dissenting ideas. It is a depressing pattern which has occurred with some regularity in many of the freedom struggles that have marked the post-War and post-Cold War world. In the Tibetan case it is not possible to separate such actions from the cult-of-personality attached to the Dalai Lama and the resulting special sanctity accorded his political views. Indeed, given the fact that exile society exists within the legal structures of India, the mechanics and pressure applied to hindering dissent are of necessity very much attached to the cult-of-personality.

Given the situation, the existence of an independent media remains crucially important. And this brings us back, yet again, to RFA, which did cover the Sydney incident and which does continue to broadcast important news from Tibet. But spreading palpably unsupportable and unsubstantiated stories such as the one mentioned earlier (“Many Chinese Sympathetic to Tibet: RFA Poll”) can only work to dilute RFA’s credibility. Under Jigme Ngapo RFA had a reputation (and earned respect) for providing a diversity of opinion. But the forces that sought to end the laudable work that Jigme Ngapo did now seem intent on seeing that RFA functions in accord with their political views. When RFA got around to finding a replacement for Jigme Ngapo a show was made of finding a Tibetan Service director who would undo the damage caused by Jigme Ngapo’s dismissal and bring the highest standards to the post. The job announcement that was circulated called for a candidate with a background related to journalism, someone with contacts and ties inside Tibet, and, ideally, fluency in Chinese. And who was finally chosen? Tenzin Tethong. He is a pleasant enough person, perhaps, but he is someone without a background in journalism, without contacts in Tibet or China, and with no facility at all in Chinese. Oh, but he did bring one thing to the table: the experience of having previously served as Kalon Tripa, the position to which Lobsang Sangay was elected. In other words, someone with ties and contacts not inside Tibet but inside the Dharamsala establishment. Following Tenzin Tethong’s appointment, Libby Liu, RFA’s president, expressed the hope that his hire “will go a long way towards healing,” by which one can only understand that she hopes this will help put the embarrassment of the sacking of Jigme Ngapo (and the disgraceful way in which it was done) behind her.

One ought to give Tenzin Tethong a chance. Perhaps he will decide to continue some of those things that won Jigme Ngapo much appreciation and admiration from listeners and staff: a commitment to presenting diverse opinions and a studied non-partisanship; perhaps one will begin hearing again the voices of those whose presence so annoyed Libby Liu and the authorities in Dharamsala. That would require a real understanding of and commitment to the essential worth of civil society. It would require that the new director of the Tibetan Service be prepared to stand up to the demands of Libby Liu, authorities in Dharamsala, and the thralldom of the cult-of-personality. Given the Dalai Lama’s involvement in this whole business, it would require a gut-level understanding that he is human and that his political opinion is the opinion of a man, an opinion that cannot be accorded divine weight. This is essential if one wishes to make a stab at supporting the institutions of civil society.

If this does not happen; if the Tibetan Service of RFA continues further down the road of functioning as the house organ of the Tibetan exile leadership, one would hope that there would be protest or pushback from within the Tibetan community in exile, protest rooted in a commitment to civil society. But the outlook for this is bleak; when even the TYC (which China ludicrously brands a “terrorist organization”) appears to be capable of little more than an ineffectual, muffled protest at moves that stifle its right to free assembly and free speech, there seems precious little basis for hope. Nevertheless, when the circle of world leaders willing to meet the Dalai Lama is starting to shrink, when various industries (notably, but not uniquely, Hollywood, the place where popular images are made) are increasingly concerned about not offending China, when China has no hesitation about aggressively pressing truly irredentist territorial demands, perhaps a good dose of civil society debate in Dharamsala is needed before the next round of echo-chamber praise for the ostensible success of the Middle Way Approach begins.


Readers who have made it to the end of this admittedly long blog post have, I hope, grasped the central point: that the civil society deficit within China and within Tibetan exile society is deep and damaging. As regards exile society, there was a stunning display of what this means only a few days after this post was put up. At an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington D.C. on May 8, Lobsang Sangay was discussing the position that he and the exile administration take towards China. The event was presided over by Prof. Jerome Cohen of New York University, perhaps best known at the moment for the help he extended to human rights activist Chen Guangcheng. The proceedings were recorded and the video is available online.

At approximately 26 minutes into the recording Lobsang Sangay states: “We are not asking that democracy be implemented or be allowed inside Tibet. What we are asking is rights as per the provisions of the Chinese Constitution. So democracy is what we aspire, but that’s not part of what we are asking to the Chinese Government” (sic). In other words the Tibetan struggle is no longer one that even seeks basic democratic rights for Tibetans. “We are not asking that democracy… be allowed inside Tibet.” Sadly, no one in the audience, at least none among those who rose to ask questions, thought to even query this. Only Jerome Cohen pressed him on the matter. At 28 minutes he notes “It’s very interesting to see what this would amount to if there’s no freedom of speech for the people in Tibet.” He gets no further explanation or qualification on this point from Lobsang Sangay. Later on (40 minutes and 50 seconds in) he tries again: “Of course one problem with Tibetans is if you give them freedom of speech they may not shout ‘autonomy,’ they may shout ‘independence.’” “Not necessarily,” responds Lobsang Sangay, reeling off a few examples of what he considers comparable conflicts (e.g., Quebec, Northern Ireland, “Catalina” [sic; one assumes he means Catalonia]) that have found resolution. Ignoring the fact that these conflicts—whatever relevance they may or may not have for the Tibetan Issue—all involved parties that subscribed to fundamental ideas about democracy and rights (and which therefore made the violations of those rights potent elements in the disputes), Lobsang Sangay concludes simply that if an agreement is reached the people will abide by it. Of course! In fact he had earlier in the discussion (21 minutes and 45 seconds in) made it clear why he assumes as much: “If the Chinese Government implements their own laws we take that as a genuine autonomy and we don’t challenge or ask for an overthrow of the Communist Party…” (sic). When Jerome Cohen then asks “How do you maintain autonomy if you have continuing party control of the government?” the answer begins: “As long as Tibetans are in charge in the leadership…”

So this is what it has come down to, fifty-plus years after the beginning of an exile struggle rooted in the idea and idealism of Tibet as a nation, and 25 years after the Middle Way Approach scuttled that idealism (but still asserted that the goal was to achieve a Tibet that was “a democratic political entity… in association with the People’s Republic of China). The goal now is not any sort of democratic system in Tibet; it is rule by the Communist Party, albeit with Tibetan party members staffing the leadership positions. The idea of civil society rights and norms has no part in this. And the reaction in the exile community? A comment here and there, but otherwise mostly silent acquiescence so far to the exile leader’s endorsement of party dictatorship with a Tibetan face as the solution to the Tibet Issue. Not that this will make any difference to the Chinese authorities. Surely it only confirms their assumptions about the inherent weakness of the exile political structure. To the list of strengths that it lacks (political, military, financial, etc.) they can now add moral.


* I use the term “Oriental Studies” here to reflect the fact that “Orientalism” is translated two different ways in Chinese. Said uses one single term to cover representations of the Orient (essentially the Islamic Orient) in areas such as art and literature but also in academic writing as well. With regard to the former (and in the general sense of the word) it is often rendered in Chinese as Dongfangzhuyi 东方主义, with the import of “ism” reflected in zhuyi 主义. But with regard to Orientalism in academic writing the term used is Dongfangxue 东方学, which ought to be properly translated as “Orientology,” “Orientalistics,” or, as I’ve chosen to do here, for reading fluidity, “Oriental Studies.” In the title of his article Wang Hui uses the term Dongfangzhuyi but, as can be seen here, he also uses Dongfangxue in referring to academic writings and studies. The reader may also note from the photograph of the cover of the Chinese translation of the book that the title, Orientalism, is given as Dongfangxue.